Anti-Photography Bullies at the National Christmas Tree Don’t Want You Getting Pictures of Santa’s Workshop

Over by the National Christmas Tree there is a Santa’s Workshop where children can line up to visit Santa Claus and have a picture taken. I don’t have kids but when I visited Saturday night, the view through the window was a cozy, picturesque scene of a jolly old man smiling as he held wide-eyed children on his lap, and I had to get a photo — which, of course, came out blurry in the dark.


As I was fiddling with my ISO settings an elf-suited girl told me, “You can’t take photos through the window, the flash will just reflect off the glass and distract Mr. Claus.”

“Thanks,” I replied amiably, “I have flash off.”

“Well, you still can’t take photos!” said a man by the exit, bodily moving to block the window. I believe he may have been trying to sound intimidating, but it came out as more obnoxious than anything else. Not wanting to make a scene, I said nothing more, put away my camera, and walked off in a huff.

This is sounding a bit like Union Station’s photography “policy,” isn’t it? Santa’s Workshop at the National Christmas Tree is provided by Underwriters Laboratories, an independent organization (whose Safety At Home site, ironically, encourages you to friend them on Flickr). The workshop sits on National Park ground, and I was exercising what I believe is a First Amendment Right in public space, right in front of the White House, no less.

In retrospect, I should not have allowed myself to be scared away by the hired goons of Underwriters Laboratories. I liked the scene of Santa Claus in the window, and getting a photo of that scene threatened no one’s rights or safety. It’s a sad, sad thing when, at Christmastime, on the very doorstep of the home of those sworn to protect our freedoms, there are some who think they can bully those freedoms away just because they think some people shouldn’t be allowed to preserve a holiday image.

Update: I love Twitter. A response from UL’s Safety at Home: Really sorry to hear you had that experience, we will check into the policies at Santa’s workshop. Not sure whether that’s a yes or no from them on photos in public places, but at least we know they’re listening. (Have I mentioned I love Twitter? You should add us.)

Update: I received the following more comprehensive reply from UL’s Safety At Home people who run Santa’s Workshop:

Dear Brownpau,

We’re sorry to hear that you were disappointed by your experience at Santa’s Workshop.

We have had very few problems or complaints arise, and things have been moving along smoothly. Last a couple of parents complained to the Kodak team when they noticed strangers taking photos of their kids with Santa. They felt their privacy was being compromised. Because of this, the team/elves are asking adults not to take photos of Santa through the Workshop windows. Furthermore, adults taking photographs through the windows create a bottleneck in front of the building and block the large “safety tips” panel on the façade of the building. We think that the “no photo” policy is sound because it allows the families to have a pleasant experience at the Workshop, it keeps the area safe for the visitors and the line moving, and it permits the UL safety tips to be read by the public.

Since the Workshop has proved popular with single adults (or groups of adults without kids), the Workshop staff is allowing adults to tour the structure before 6 PM since the crowd is lighter and they can accommodate the adults without getting in the way of the families. We spoke with the staff today about your comments and emphasize that when they discourage adults from taking photos, they should also welcome them to come back and tour the Workshop/take photos during the day.

Please let us know if you have any other questions or concerns.

-The Safety at Home team

Roving Asian mendicant, can occasionally be seen wandering the streets of downtown Washington, muttering unintelligible gibberish to passers-by while pushing a “bag lady” shopping cart full of old blankets, American flags, soda cans, and healthy secondhand snacks from organic food shop dumpsters. Used to live in a cardboard box at 16th and K but the rent was too expensive.

23 thoughts on “Anti-Photography Bullies at the National Christmas Tree Don’t Want You Getting Pictures of Santa’s Workshop

  1. Oh I suspect it’s more about not wanting competition to their taking & selling of pictures of kiddies sitting on Santa’s lap.

  2. First of all, it’s about the kids. They don’t want people perving-out and taking pics of kids.

    Secondly, they are selling photos. So, if you are up there poaching photos then you are sort of cutting them out of the loop.

    Lastly, when you write, “the view through the window…” implies that they are in an enclosed, private area and a have a “reasonable expectation of privacy”. Which is why you can’t stand on a public street and shoot photos through the window of someone’s home.

  3. if they were my kids i wouldn’t want some stranger taking pictures of them through the window and putting them up on the internet.

  4. So, taking photos of a Santa’s workshop, surrounded by people on the National Mall, is just like spying on people at home through their windows.

    And am I even allowed to take photos of people engaging in commerce in public places now, or does that constitute theft of the goods and services being marketed? Note that I’m not really trying to take photos of a posed Santa+kids scene to get around the in-house photog, just trying to get a framed shot of Santa in a nicely crafted workshop.

    Plus I’m now a pervert, too. Better keep your kids at home and in private, folks. They might come out in photos.

  5. Hey, man, if you are going to be a part of the media then you have to play by the rules. Freedom of the Press doesn’t mean that you can do whatever you want.

    Also, people look to the press to be unbiased, even-handed, and well…not whiney. You aren’t whining are you?

  6. Which rules was Brownpau breaking, exactly, Carleton? He wasn’t shooting with flash, which was their concern, and he was shooting in a public place.

    I know kids are a sensitive issue when it comes to photography, but this is pretty silly.

    And *Freedom* of the Press means that you are free to shoot what is newsworthy and interesting, Carleton, not what the parties involved in the story WANT you to shoot.

  7. I’m a bit disturbed by those first few comments. They’re the idiots who accost photographers on the streets screaming about how it’s illegal to take photographs of people without their permission. No amount of reasoning (or, in snarkier moments, laughing in their faces) will get them to stop.

    Carlton, it’s a public area. There is no reasonable expectation of privacy on the front steps of the White House. Is it possible you’re unfamiliar with the area?

    It’s not about being media or not. The rules are pretty much the same for all of us, and brownpau is 100 percent in the right here.

  8. I am completely on the side of Brownpau. Just because the shot was through a window, doesn’t create a reasonable expectation of privacy, especially when it isn’t a private residence. And Tom’s response was perfect on the idiotic Freedom of Press “issue.” This is bully tactics at it’s worst, and no one should have to put up with it!

  9. I understand why people would not you taking that photo, for all the reasons people mentioned above. But too bad – you are on public property taking photos of something in plain view. Don’t want your kids photographed? Don’t bring them into view. Be like Michael Jackson and put blankets on them and raise them under grow lights with the Elephant Man’s skeleton.

    Out in public = fair game.

    Also, even if that were a private residence, that would be fair game. Photographing something in plain view from a public place or from your own private property is allowed. So if you walk naked in front of the window each morning, it is within your neighbor’s rights to photograph you. If you sell opium in front of the plate glass window looking out to the street, the police will use that for surveillance and will photograph and bust you.

    I am not saying this is what we should all do, but the burden should be on the public to not do things they don’t want forever recorded. We all are subject to appearing in camera memory when we are in public. If you are in DC at all, you are already recorded a hundred times before you ever see a camera. Get over it, folks.

    This is one of those cases where our ethical obligations and legal rights are at odds. We have an ethical obligation not to go photograph your kids or else not to make money at your business, taking photos of your set-up. However, it’s all out in public and therefore legally fair game.

  10. It is time to bring yourself back to reality. To compare this situation with the debacle at Union Station is well, ludicrous. I agree it is more about them not wanting to lose any sales than it was anything else. Some little dressed up elf confronts you and you want to make it some sort of rights and freedoms case. You must like to see yourself as something bigger than you really are.

    I am so so tired of this thing about photographing people in public. To the letter of the law Mr. Weaver is correct. However, lets assume that one has no desire to fantasize about children in a bad way. What purpose do these photographs really serve. You cannot sell them (they hardly qualify as editorial content). I can’t understand what these so called new age photographers (and I use that term loosely) see if having all these images other than filling their hard drives.

    So Mr. Weaver, if I sat in front of your residence snapping pictures hoping that I would catch a glimpse of something, you would have no problems. Of course everyone is so paranoid now it would probably be some sort of subversive government agenda doing this.

  11. @S. Simpson

    Back to Reality? Just because you don’t understand the motives of the photographer (which are completely irrelevant) with regard to taking lots of photographs, you immediately condemn them as pervs?

    Why do we always assume that people with cameras are perverts?

  12. We’ve got to get the ACLU on this. This is too big. We can’t let these elves get away with this sh*t NO MORE!

    Sure, elves make really cool bicycles and robots and stuff, but what gives them the right to tell us when we can’t take photos in their place that they set up to take and sell photos. I mean that’s like McDonalds not letting me make hamburgers in their restaurant.

    Who cares if the photos I take are for personal use and the photos they take and sell me are for my personal use, too. It doesn’t matter. I want to do what I want to do when I want to do it where I want to do it with no god danged lip from no elfsszzsszz!!

    (Now where did I put Al Sharpton’s phone number…)

  13. I find it exceptionally sad that our culture has shifted from a mindset where someone had to prove some actual harm to one where we ask “well, why would you want to do that anyway?”

    Who cares why Paulo wants a picture? A lot of you have hobbies I find perfectly incomprehensible, do you have to justify them to me or give them up?

    As far as this silly boogyman about a creep looking at pictures of kids and thinking icky thoughts, why allow any pictures of any children anywhere? No more kids on television – the tiny minority of creeps in the world might think bad thoughts, so the 99.999% of the population that are normal and law-abiding need to alter their behavior.

    Because after all, if they look at pictures of THAT SPECIFIC KID and think bad thoughts then, then….. SOMETHING bad will happen!

  14. A public attraction set up on government land is fair game to photograph. Period, full stop, end of sentence. Santa has no expectation of privacy on the Ellipse.

    I’m the first one to take someone to task for using their 1st Amendment rights to be a dick, even while defending those rights, but for god’s sake… it’s a Christmas attraction in a public space. If you don’t want people taking pictures of it, maybe don’t make it a tourist attraction in the middle of public property.

    You are not entitled to know the motives of every single person wishing to engage in legal behavior. You just aren’t. It’s none of your business.

  15. I was at the tree and Santa’s workshop on Sunday night. The photo? That was actually free. Yes, free. Some more fact checking is called for here. Don’t get so riled up that you forget to get the full scoop.

    And the elves were not only shooing away photographers, but anyone blocking the sign with the hours, etc. I’d guess (and I feel I have every right to guess as a commenter, and not a member of the press) that had to do with two things:
    1) Traffic. Lots of people going in and out, and they kept that line moving quickly
    2) The sponsor paid to have their name seen on the sign. I’m just sayin’…

    I suggest you put on a silly costume and stand out in the cold for hours on end for what is probably little pay. After a few people make your job a little more difficult by mucking up the system, you might have a short answer vs. a more well thought out reply.

    Lastly: just because you CAN take a photo of me doesn’t mean I have to like it. The photo brigade on here gets so wrapped up in “right to photograph” they often forget “right to treat people like, well, PEOPLE and not their personal props for a pretty photo-op.” No, it doesn’t make you a perv to take a photo, but you don’t have to be an asshole about it, either.

  16. Kate… If you dress up in a costume and perform at an event open to the public, YOU open yourself to being used as a prop. Heck, you are a already considered a prop by the organization running the event. So, people are going to take photos that include you. Get over it. If you don’t like it or it’s no fun to stand out in the cold dressed in tights, don’t do it. And the amount of pay is irrelevant… The fact that you are doing it for $2 an hour is YOUR problem, not anyone elses.

  17. Actually, Mike, that’s not at all what I said. For that matter, the original post was about not being allowed to photograph through the window, not the elves and others in costume.

    My comment about people in tights was not “they shouldn’t bitch about getting their photo taken.” My comment was that, by telling people to keep moving, they were just doing their job. I think people on the “all photo all the time” bandwagon sometimes forget that, right or wrong, the people telling them “no” were told that by someone higher up the food chain. I’m just saying cut the person some slack. There’s no reason to berate them or get angry at them.

    My refernce to using people as props had to do with the a long running discussion here and previously on DCMetblogs (if I recall correctly). Yes, you have a right to photograph who and what you want. But to be militant about it forgets that PEOPLE are involved. I guess I’m old fashioned in thinking having the courtesy to assume someone might not want to be in my photo is more important than having the perfect composition. Or if I really wnat that photo, I’ll ask. After all, you draw more flies with honey than vinegar.

  18. The folks on the side of the parents and wee elves have a good point. As photographers and fellow human beings, we should be nice to others, try to get their permission where possible, etc. Let’s all try to be nice to each other.

    And we have to remember that just as it is our right to photograph whatever we want in public, it is others’ right to be dicks and stand in our way. Nothing we can do about that. It’s part of the game of photography. Another part of the game is the hunt for the right photo. So you get blocked on one side – what about the other?

    We all have rights but we also have the responsibility to be nice to each other. But yeah – I’m going to get the photo I want, whether you like it or not, if I want it bad enough. I don’t care if you have a badge or little pointy elf ears because I know my rights. Approach me in a nice way and we can talk about it. Approach me like a dick and we won’t be doing much talking.

    So to answer S. Simpson’s question, no, I would not like for you to stand on the sidewalk and photograph me in my house. However, when the rubber meets the road, there’s really nothing I can do about it. That’s the thing. The laws for society are above my personal preferences, as they should be. We don’t have to like all instances of the laws being upheld. That’s part of what makes them impartial.

    But if you are in public, especially if you are acting like an ass, don’t be surprised or get pissed if someone takes your photo. it’s part of the game of living in the US, where we have the freedom to document what happens in public.

    To those of you who DO get upset about such things, how do you feel about being under constant surveillance while in DC? Every step brings you into view of cameras. Is that at all different? Do you just avoid DC and the surrounding areas? Avoid banks, supermarkets, all stores, malls and many streets? What’s the difference?

  19. The difference is that the surveillance videos have an expressed purpose and are used for such.

    What purpose did you have for photographing those children without their parent’s permission?